This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday of Advent, given in the “church up the road” and the “church next door.” The Scriptures it references are Isaiah 7:10-16 and Matthew 1:18-25.
One of the most consistent problems in Christian thinking, is the idea that somehow when Jesus was born, God changed. Or more specifically, that God in the Old Testament, and God in the New Testament, are really quite different; that the Old Testament God was all about rules and wrath and punishment, and that the New Testament God is full of warm fuzzies. Taken to extremes, this has even led some people to suggest that the God of the Old Testament wasn’t really God at all.
That’s a mistake, and sadly, it’s a mistake that’s often made when people know neither part of the Bible well enough to recognise that there is love and warmth and grace in the Old Testament, and indeed that there are rules and wrath in the New! But more than that, it’s a mistake that happens when we fail to see the way these texts, and their understanding of God, constantly connect with one another, giving witness to God’s unchanging character.
This morning’s reading from Isaiah gives us a good example of that. Here is a prophecy, originally given to King Ahaz somewhere in the 730s BC, as he anticipated an invasion by Syria. Isaiah makes it clear that the rescue from the Syrian threat would come very soon. The baby – we don’t know who it was, maybe a royal baby, but the text doesn’t tell us – but the baby originally born to fulfil that promise was born in that time, and in that religious and political context.
The thing to understand here is that this isn’t a prediction of Jesus. It’s a message that belongs in its own time and place. But when Jesus was born, Matthew referred to this prophecy and said that it is fulfilled in Jesus; and what he is saying is that the birth of Jesus is, in some way, like the birth of this other, unnamed baby. The birth of Jesus is also a sign that rescue is coming. The birth of Jesus is also an invitation to trust.
Where God brought rescue for Ahaz and Judah from their enemies, so in Jesus does God bring rescue from every ultimate enemy. The withdrawal of the threat of Syria was a short-lived respite for God’s people in the time of Isaiah. But Jesus, the baby Matthew wrote about, will be and is God with us in a bigger, more lasting way.
What we’re supposed to see here is God’s consistency. God rescued his people, God could be trusted with their welfare, in the time of Ahaz. And God rescued his people, God could be trusted with their welfare, at the time of Jesus’ birth. And God rescues his people and can be trusted today, and to the end of days… You see the pattern. God’s attitudes and behaviour are consistent and we can rely on them.
This is a really important principle for understanding all those Old Testament prophecies and texts which Christians have understood as being in some way about Jesus. It’s not as if the ancient Jewish writers were writing only about Christ, making predictions about events centuries in the future. No; Isaiah and the other prophets wrote about God’s attitudes and actions in their own day, and when Christ came, Christians saw the connections and the consistency with the writings they already had, and kept pointing to those writings to explain Jesus. “He’s just like that.” Just like those past events that we’ve already established were God at work among us.
So God’s character and attitude towards us is a constant; part of what makes God, God.
More than that, though, there’s also a point about the direction of God’s actions.
What I mean by that is, the original prophecy by Isaiah to Ahaz was for one small country in one particular twist of history. By the time Christ came, although we are seeing the same attitudes, the same kinds of actions, from God, we see the birth of a baby who is God’s promise of rescue and safety for a much bigger circle of people; for all humankind, if we will have Him. And as we look towards the future, we see a promise being held out of God’s rescue and safety on a cosmic scale, and into eternity. So God is consistent, yes, but more than that, what we see in the Old Testament sometimes as small actions, get echoed and made louder and bigger and more open until that consistent attitude embraces everyone and everything in creation.
So I think that’s what hearing these two readings – Isaiah and then his echo in Matthew – is encouraging us to think about today. About a God whose character is constant and whose embrace stretches ever wider to encompass the whole world.
There is also, I think, an implied comparison with other systems at work in the world.
For the story of God’s rescue of us, the safety and the offer of a flourishing life, to have real meaning, it has to be contrasted with a negative view of the alternative. Isaiah’s audience understood this instinctively; the enemy army was over the horizon. Perhaps the Jews of Jesus’ day, under Roman rule, understood it instinctively too; although we know that later some of their expectations showed they had misunderstood it, in expecting a triumphant rebel-king. But I’m not sure that we always get it; I’m not sure that we look around, at our world, with its governments and economies and media empires and see it as something which we might need to be rescued from.
But if part of the message of Jesus is that God’s got something better on offer to us, then the corollary of that is that our current reality is deeply flawed. It is – to use the vivid imagery of the book of Revelation – the whore of Babylon, the mother of all systems of power and oppression and exploitation. That might be uncomfortable language, but I think we need to take that sort of idea seriously, if Jesus’ coming is going to mean more to us than just sentimentality.
The gospel, even at Christmas time, offers us so much more than sentimentality. It offers us a vision of a world transformed by a God of steadfast and trustworthy character, and an invitation to be part of the transformation.
In the last week before Christmas, I encourage you to think about what God might be inviting you personally to, this year; and how you might respond.